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If We Build It, Will They Come? The Impact of a Voluntary Scholarly Community on Online Students

Ronald Berman (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Henry Radda (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Ted Cross (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Session Information
November 21, 2013 - 9:40am
Student Services and Learner Support
Areas of Special Interest: 
Social Networking
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere 5
Session Duration: 
35 Minutes
Information Session 6
Virtual Session

An examination of the impact and value of a voluntary virtual community built for online students.

Extended Abstract

The goal of this presentation is to report on new research examining the impact of a voluntary scholarly community on online students.

Introduction & Context

It is well documented that traditional doctoral student attrition is approximately 50% (Damrosch, 2006; Lovitts, 2001). In addition, some authors argue that online non-traditional programs have even higher attrition rates (Carr, 2000; Stover, 2005). While there are many causes for student doctoral attrition, some point to a lack of support systems coupled with factors of isolation as sources of attrition (Azad & Kohun, 2006; Sowell et al., 2009; Lovits, 2001; Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2011; Terrell et al., 2009). In order to remedy these problems, it may be important to consider adult learning principles in designing interventions to help non-traditional doctoral students complete their programs of study (Knowles, 1977).

Building on principles of adult learning theory, Grand Canyon University and the College of Doctoral Studies has created a voluntary virtual scholarly network—The Doctoral Community Network (DC Network). The DC Network provides a rich collaborative environment that includes resources, roadmaps, references, and tools to support students in becoming independent scholars, capable of producing and publishing high-quality research. While this online network is designed to help support students and is built on principles of adult learning theory, it was unknown how students value the community and interact with it. As such this study was aimed at understanding how graduating students valued the voluntary scholarly network, how and if it helped them complete their program, and whether or not there were differences in either of these areas according to student demographics. Further, the findings of this study provide informative and important constructs of-- how and what-- students find helpful in an optional online scholarly network. These constructs can be applied to the development or enhancement of new or existing optional virtual communities.

Research Questions

The following research questions framed this study:

  • Do graduating doctoral students value their use of a voluntary scholarly network (DC Network)?
  • To what extent do graduating doctoral students use a voluntary scholarly network (DC Network)?
  • What resources are graduating doctoral students using on a voluntary scholarly network (DC Network)?
  • Are there differences in usage and/or value for different student demographics?


This study was designed from a quantitative perspective and utilized an online survey instrument to gather data from the target population of 48 graduating doctoral students. The online survey consisted of 14 questions. The survey was administered to the target population between the dates of 4.15.13 and 4.20.13 after which the survey was closed, resulting in a 50% response rate. The results of the survey were analyzed using descriptive statistics.


The data gathered from the survey revealed several important findings in relation to how graduating doctoral students valued and used the DC Network. Further, the data showed several other points on how digital natives and digital immigrants use the network.

In terms of how the respondents valued their participation in the voluntary on-line scholarly network:

  • 78% responded that their participation in the scholarly network helped them locate research resources
  • 67% responded that their participation in the scholarly network helped them complete their doctoral program of study
  • 58% responded that their participation in the scholarly network helped them feel connected to other learners
  • 56% responded that their participation in the scholarly network helped them feel connected to faculty
  • 38% responded that their participation in the scholarly network helped them feel less isolated

In terms of how the respondents use the voluntary scholarly network:

  • 92% indicated that they used the scholarly network to find doctoral resources
  • 63% indicated that they use the scholarly network to communicate with others
  • 92% indicated that the scholarly network helped them locate dissertation resources

Some differences were noted between digital natives and digital immigrants:

  • 60% of digital natives and 78% of digital immigrants reported logging on to the DC network at least once per week
  • 10% of digital natives and 64% of the digital immigrants logon at least twice a week
  • 20% of digital natives and 50% of digital immigrants reported that they somewhat agreed or agreed that the DC network help them feel less isolated

Conclusion/ Discussion

Overall, doctoral graduates who completed the study indicate that the scholarly network is perceived to be helpful in completing the doctoral program of study, foster communication between learners and each other as well as faculty, that the network may be helpful in reducing learner isolation, and that digital natives and digital immigrants interact with the network in different ways. More specifically, students reported using the network to find academic resources to help them in their course work as well as to communicate and thus feel connected to both faculty and colleagues.

In this way, the study indicates that providing communication channels as well as clearly defined and applicable resources are important to consider when designing a voluntary online community. Further, the study indicates that learners are motivated to use the network in ways that are congruent with adult learning theory. Learners use the community to connect with each other, share knowledge, and find resources that enable them to solve relevant problems (Knowles, 1977). These results have applications not only at the doctoral level, but at all levels of higher education and perhaps across discipline when attempting to create innovative ways to enhance the connectedness of leaners to each other and to faculty.

Lead Presenter

Dr. Berman is an experienced education leader who is passionate about researching, managing and deploying new products and processes that enhance the learner experience. Dr. Berman has extensive management experience obtained at Fortune 100 companies (IBM, SAP) is augmented with broad academic credentials that includes a Doctorate in Education, a Master of Science in Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. A strong academic foundation combined with extensive businessExpertise has enabled Dr. Berman to lead customer, consultant and partner education organizations while introducing innovative learning technologies supporting the enhancement of curriculum development processes.

Dr. Berman is currently the Executive Director of Academic Excellence for the College of Doctoral Studies and is responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of long term strategies that enhance the effectiveness of Doctoral Education at Grand Canyon University. He is the primary architect of the Doctoral Community Network and has research interest in virtual learning communities, open source technologies, learning management systems, synchronous delivery systems, asynchronous delivery systems,research processes, computer tablets, and strategic directions to enhance retention of doctoral learners. Dr. Berman is also an Assistant Professor and regularly teaches leadership and other courses in the doctoral program.